The New Sex Math: Probabilities and Opportunities

January 25, 2011

In a recent post I asked why difficult, demanding women who put out get boyfriends. (Hint: the qualifier at the end is the kicker.) Several guys commented that it’s because bitches and sluts try harder. They’re making their interest known, signaling their availability, driving down the risk of rejection for the male. They also consider them more feminine and attractive. But why? The most attractive women don’t have to be sluts. Or do they? An attractive but moody woman who’s DTF represents an easy and rewarding target compared to the shy, lovely girl in your chemistry class. Apparently, this drives male behavior – especially in college.

I. The Eligible Bachelor Paradox

It turns out that signaling availability, and possibly even acting as the aggressor, may be a valid strategy throughout one’s dating career. Mark Gimein wrote The Eligible Bachelor Paradox, exploring how game theory might explain why dinner parties among 30-somethings always seem to have a shortage of available, appealing men.

The shortage—or—more exactly, the perception of a shortage—becomes evident as you hit your late 20s and more acute as you wander into the 30s. Some men explain their social fortune by believing they’ve become more attractive with age; many women prefer the far likelier explanation that male faults have become easier to overlook.

The problem of the eligible bachelor is one of the great riddles of social life. Shouldn’t there be about as many highly eligible and appealing men as there are attractive, eligible women?

Gimein says no, and offers an explanation via game theory. In any auction, there will be “strong bidders” and “weak bidders.” Strong bidders are very confident of their ability to win the auction. However, weak bidders understand they can be outbid and often bid more aggressively, while the strong bidders hold out for a great deal. Empirical studies of auctions show that weak bidders often win. In dating, a strong bidder is a woman who feels very confident of her ability to attract men, while a weak bidder knows that she is less attractive and faces stiff competition.

You can see how this works intuitively if you just consider that with a lot at stake in getting it right in one shot, it’s the women who are confident that they are holding a strong hand who are likely to hold out and wait for the perfect prospect.

It’s all about the checklist! Meanwhile, women holding a weaker hand make moves.

Where have all the most appealing men gone? Married young, most of them—and sometimes to women whose most salient characteristic was not their beauty, or passion, or intellect, but their decisiveness.

Grimein does close with a very important caveat:

Game theory deals with how best to win the prize, but it works only when you can decide what’s worth winning.

As an interesting aside, this calls into question the constant refrain that women who are less attractive than their hookups can get them for sex but not for commitment. That makes sense intuitively, but it appears that down the road, at least some men marry the women who bid aggressively. Some of those men may not be worth winning, but some of them are bound to be. In fact, men who are attractive but not socially dominant in their sphere may be quickest to jump at the chance to secure a woman – even if she is not as attractive as he is. The weak bidders are snatching up the good men!

II. The Carol Syndrome

The Eligible Bachelor Paradox dovetails nicely with another game theory concept that’s been applied to dating – dubbed The Carol Syndrome, named for the author’s beautiful friend Carol. Carol doesn’t get asked out much, and she believes that she frightens men away, but she doesn’t understand why. Surely some men are willing to approach her! It turns out that game theory can explain, at least theoretically why no men do.

Let’s say that Carol is sitting in Starbucks. Cute Guy sees her and feels attraction – he would love to get her number. He figures there are three potential outcomes, listed in order of preference:

1. Approach Carol and get her number. Win!

2. Forget it and go back to texting. Meh.

3. Approach Carol and get rejected. Loser!

While Cute Guy is deciding what to do, he notices other guys in Starbucks, several of whom also have noticed Carol and are also stealing glances at her. He is a STEM guy, so he calculates his odds of success with each approach. Obviously, his chance of success with option 2 is zero. Option 1 is much more likely if he’s the only guy who approaches Carol, and Option 3 is probable if several guys approach Carol. He’d really rather not deal with the rejection. But she is gorgeous! How to know what other guys will do?

Game theory says that the better looking Carol is, the more guys will want to approach her, and the more likely that any one of them will be rejected. Since all the guys act independently, the odds are highest that each of them will conclude that it is not a good idea to approach Carol. The more admiring men there are in Starbucks, the lower Carol’s chances of getting approached at all. (Math nerds can find the equation here.)

The article concludes:

“Carol’s perception that she scares men away is not a delusion after all. According to the mathematics above, she may be justified in thinking that guys stay away from her. It is not a matter of bad luck but a collateral effect of interactive rationality. A paradoxical consequence is that Carol’s attractiveness acts as a repellent. This surprising phenomenon — which we call the Carol syndrome —is a by-product of psychological social interaction.”

Men like to say that beautiful women get hit on 50 times a day, but it simply isn’t true. They’re much more likely to go through their day having awkward interactions with tongue-tied men who won’t look them in the eye. Very few men have the cajones to approach a 10 and hit on her – and most 10s are not likely to jump at the chance to stroke the ego of a player. In this sociosexual climate, there are fewer men who feel confident approaching, period.

III. OK Cupid’s Mathematics of Beauty

OKCupid’s latest blog post is about how the distribution of scores men give women for attractiveness predicts how many messages those women will receive. They studied this after noticing that many women rating in the 80th percentile, on average, had widely varying response rates from men.

The first thing they pointed out was that the scoring for a woman who is rated a 7 can look like this:

Or this:

It turns out that women with the second profile get a lot more interest from men, 2-3 times as much in some cases. OKCupid calls is the curse of being “cute” and comes up with a weighted formula that suggests you’re better off if 30% of guys think you’re heinous than if everyone thinks you’re quite attractive. What’s going on? OKCupid says that some people tend to produce stronger reactions than others. Being a person who draws a consensus appraisal is an online dating faux pas, and they go so far as to suggest playing up your faults in photos. Don’t hide those chubby thighs! I’m not particularly impressed with this reasoning (but then again, they’re the statisticians).

I agree that cute and wholesome appears to be a curse, according to these numbers, but in looking at the photos, it seems that many of the successful women are “hot and nasty” looking. In other words, the women with more uneven ratings look decidedly more sexually available, in my opinion.

For example, this woman: is getting only half the messages of this woman:


The first woman is faaaaar better looking, in my opinion, but she doesn’t look like the sexual hellcat that is woman #2. In other words, the first woman is suffering from The Carol Syndrome. She got lots of high-ish ratings, but few men approached her. The second woman gets plenty of zeroes, but more ratings of “hot.” The guys who rated her “hot” followed through and took their shot.

Via a different route, OKCupid and I come to the same conclusion:

“So this is our paradox: when some men think you’re ugly, other men are more likely to message you. And when some men think you’re cute, other men become less interested. Why would this happen? Perhaps a little game theory can explain:

Suppose you’re a man who’s really into someone. If you suspect other men areuninterested, it means less competition. You therefore have an added incentive to send a message. You might start thinking: maybe she’s lonely. . . maybe she’s just waiting to find a guy who appreciates her. . . at least I won’t get lost in the crowd. . . maybe these small thoughts, plus the fact that you really think she’s hot, prod you to action.

On the other hand…someone conventionally cute, but not totally hot, might appear to be more in-demand than she actually is. To the typical man considering her, she’s obviously attractive enough to create the impression that other guys are into her, too.”

As an aside, I believe that “hot” and “edgy” are trumping “beautiful” and “warm” in the sexual marketplace today as a direct result of hookup culture, and I plan to expand on this theory in another post soon. Of course, it may be that the first woman is getting messages from men who are interested in a relationship with a lovely woman, and the second woman is getting messaged by men looking for “hit it and quit it” sex.

For now, it does appear that weak bidders have the upper hand in attracting male attention. If you’re a weak bidder (no offense), then you’d be smart to be realistic and decisive. It probably can’t hurt to draw on some heavy eyeliner and take a “come hither” photo of yourself for OKCupid.

If you’re a strong bidder, you can’t afford to sit and wait for men to seek you out. You must be proactive in your search for a man. The only way Carol is likely to get a date at Starbucks is if she approaches the man she finds attractive. That would be the highest possible payoff for Cute Guy. He gets the date without any effort whatsoever!

By the way, game theory is predicated on the notion that people behave rationally. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality, doesn’t agree (obvs, haha). He’s currently working on a book about dating, which should be very interesting.